The Taj Mahal and Basketball: Making American Professional Sports Relevant in India


So Disney is coming out with this sports movie, Million Dollar Arm, this weekend, and ESPN (being property of Disney) and Bill Simmons (being associated with the movie AND a good company man) have been plugging it relentlessly. Now the movie is apparently PG and everyone plugging it is telling you to go in expecting a movie aimed toward kids BUT whether it is Stockholm Syndrome or legitimate excitement I’ve somehow talked myself into wanting to see this movie. I like John Hamm and the story sounds like one I’m legitimately interested in.

Dinesh Patel [left] and Rinku Singh [right] (Photo Credit - Doug Benc)

Dinesh Patel [left] and Rinku Singh [right] (Photo Credit – Doug Benc)

The film follows the unlikely story of Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Long story short a down on his luck baseball agent heads to India to try to find the best cricket bowlers in the country, convert them into baseball pitchers, and be the first guy to bring an Indian baseball star to MLB. Now, Rinku and Dinesh ultimately didn’t make it big (although Rinku did become the first Indian player to play minor league baseball, and is still in the Pirates’ minor league system although he looks unlikely to get a call up to the majors) but that doesn’t make the story any less interesting. However, what I’m more interested in here is the broader story of American professional sports and an Indian audience.

Simply put, people involved in the business side of pro sports in America (and even England with the Premier league etc) see India as a massive market for expansion in terms of both fans and merchandising. The NBA is the poster child for this stuff in the post Yao Ming world. You see, before India was this lucrative gem of a market, China was where these guys wanted to expand their presence. Moreover, largely because of Yao, the NBA was able to sell a very non-traditionally Chinese sport to China with great success.

(Photo Credit -  Jeff Gross, Getty Images North America)

(Photo Credit – Jeff Gross, Getty Images North America)

So now these guys, and specifically the NBA, want to follow the same route with India [and again, I’m going to focus on the NBA because they seem to be the most likely to succeed to me due to multiple factors we’ll discuss, but soccer, baseball, and many other sports are going to be making the same efforts]. This makes sense financially. I mean… if you could get every person in India to give you one penny you’d have $12.4 million… which is enough money to pay for a year of Tony Parker, Kevin Garnett, or Serge Ibaka, its $100,000 more than you need for David West, a$1.3 million more than you need for Joakim Noah, and a whopping $2 million more than you would need to pay for Tim Duncan’s services for a year. Simply put there is a huge financial gain to be had here.

Ok, so there is definitely a lot of potential to grow the sport of basketball here . Moreover, as we already mentioned, the China experience provided a template for how the NBA in particular can expand into one of these leviathan sized markets with little history of liking their sports. Moreover, in some ways I think India is an even easier sell than China was. India already has an incredible sports culture in their country. The only issue for Americans hoping to expand there is that the sport of choice is cricket, a sport most Americans have zero experience with. Even further complicating matters is the fact that cricket absolutely DOMINATES the Indian sports community the same way Soccer dominates Europe. Everything will always be 2nd best to cricket in India.

Cricket is absolutely enormous in India and they, along with legendary rival Pakistan, are the sports best. (Photo Credit - AP and India Today

Cricket is absolutely enormous in India and they, along with Pakistan with whom they have a legendary rivalry, are the sports best. (Photo Credit – AP and India Today

So there’s one problem for the NBA. In China the NBA didn’t have any other sport to compete with BUT I don’t think the NBA is stupid enough to try to compete with cricket. All they need to do is coexist with it. As long as they go into the country with that attitude I think everything will be fine. Moreover, China had virtually no sports culture in the country when the NBA began taking its first footsteps into the country as a result of many factors such as Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution among other things. The NBA then built a sports culture in that country from scratch so I have faith that they can grab at least a corner of India’s sports consciousness.

However, as Yao Ming taught us, you can only truly energize the entirety of a potential market like this (rather than just those people who would have gravitated to your sport because they like the sport itself) by bringing in a national from that country to your league. That’s the kind of move that will make every day people pay attention to your sport. That’s the kind of thing that makes a Taxi driver in Mumbai chat with his customers about your sport.

However, as we learned from Yi “The Chairman” Jianlian, you have to be reaaaaally careful not to let greed get ahead of your scouting when you’re looking for these prospects from your desired market because you can end up with a major bust on your hands if you act too hastily.

Oh Yi... well... if you're gonna get posterized by Lebron James on live TV I guess you might as well do it with a smile... (Photo Credit - Mark Duncan)

Oh Yi… well… if you’re gonna get posterized by Lebron James on live TV I guess you might as well do it with a smile… (Photo Credit – Mark Duncan)

With that in mind, however, this year is setting up to be a critical period in the NBA to India efforts. To start with, about 12 months ago to the day (May 16, 2013) the NBA and Maloof family agreed to sell 65% of the Sacramento Kings to Vivek Ranadive, making him the first owner of Indian descent in the NBA’s history. Moreover, the other NBA owners approved Ranadive’s purchase of the Kings for around $535 million, when Seattle businessman Chris Hansen was offering more than double that amount as long as the NBA would allow him to move the team to Seattle and return the Seattle Supersonics to the NBA. On the surface this is a curious move. Why would the other owners have turned down DOUBLE the money AND a substantial relocation fee (of which each of them would get a part) in order to keep a team in Sacramento (a very small fanbase, and one which is not growing… aka not a lot of money coming in and not much more on the horizon) instead of moving the franchise to Seattle? Seattle is an enormous market comparatively with an already established fanbase… meaning there are piles of money ready to be poured into the league [for instance, jersey sales and all NBA affiliated gear does not go to the specific team whose name is on the jersey… it goes to the league and then aaaaall the money from aaaaall the team jerseys are split up evenly amongst the owners. So since you could sell a hell of a lot more Supersonics gear than Kings gear it would have been in the NBA’s best interest to put the team in Seattle].

Chris Hansen has been denied in multiple attempts to bring a team back to Seattle after the NBA colluded to steal their original team and move them to Oklahoma City. (Photo Credit - Elaine Thompson, AP)

Chris Hansen has been denied in multiple attempts to bring a team back to Seattle after the NBA colluded to steal their original team and move them to Oklahoma City. (Photo Credit – Elaine Thompson, AP)

The reason, of course, was that there are a lot more potential jersey wearers in India than in the city of Seattle. Vivek Ranadive was given the OK over Hansen because of his Indian heritage. Ranadive is very open about his desire to grow the sport of basketball in India. I really like the guy, even more so when you see how much he obviously loves the sport of basketball, and I think the other NBA owners saw this too (although for perhaps more disingenuous reasons). Ranadive, then, was allowed to purchase the Kings if he kept them in Sacramento. This helped the NBA in two ways. First, it allowed them to avoid another PR nightmare about stealing a team from another fanbase like they did to Seattle, and second it gives them their much needed in into India. Ranadive didn’t care about keeping his team in the smaller American market of Sacramento because he is trying to think bigger. He thinks the entire nation of India is his market, so why would he bother moving the team to another city? Moreover, he already got the ball rolling on his efforts to mobilize his Indian fanbase when he implored them to help make his superstar, Demarcus Cousins, (or as he would put it their superstar, the superstar of India’s team) into an all star this year.

(As an aside: I think that video actual does some really excellent subtle things when trying to energize Indian’s about NBA basketbal, specifically having the dance team perform a Bollywood inspired number dressed in Bollywood inspired cloths at the 1:06 mark. This is something Ranadive has (brilliantly in my opinion) pushed with his team, even dancing with his daughter in one such number during a halftime show)

The Ranadive family bringing Bollywood to the NBA!

The Ranadive family bringing Bollywood to the NBA!

The Cousins to the All Star game efforts ultimately failed in large part because of the many talented players in the NBA’s Western Conference, but also because of Boogie’s alleged attitude problems, but the point remains that Ranadive is for real about this India thing. If Ranadive’s longer term efforts are successful they won’t just benefit the Kings, however, but the league and the sport as a whole, and honestly I find the guy to be so like-able that I can’t help but hope for his success, even if it means the other, less fan-friendly owners benefit as a result.

Ok, so part one of the burgeoning basketball to India effort is this guy Ranadive being an NBA owner, but again, China showed us that really matters is players not owners. Chinese fans wanted to see their guy out there battling on the court with his country on his back, and I believe Indians will want the same thing. Enter the  7’5″, 360 pound Goliath that is Sim Bhullar.

(Photo Credit - Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America)

(Photo Credit – Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America)

As far as his basketball skills there’s no denying that his presence is felt on a basketball court. In his two years at New Mexico State, Bhullar led the Aggies to the NCAA tournament both years. While they were seeded fairly low and lost in the opening round both years, this year they took San Diego State (a 4 seed) to overtime and nearly pulled off the upset when Bhullar put the team on his back and went full beast mode. However, I’m still a little worried that he declared for the NBA draft too soon. I like that unlike a lot of these freakishly tall guys who run for the NBA he actually has weight on his frame… unfortunately he seems a little heavy. I would have liked to see him continue to develop his skills and tone his body at the college level. Ultimately, however, now seems like as good a time as any for him to declare since his stats didn’t improve at all between his freshman and sophomore years so he probably wasn’t going to improve any more at New Mexico. It makes even more sense  when you consider the NBA’s power play for Indian sports fans.

Bhullar almost led New Mexico State to an upset of #4 seed San Diego State in this year's NCAA tournament (Photo Credit - Steve Dykes, Getty Images)

Bhullar almost led New Mexico State to an upset of #4 seed San Diego State in this year’s NCAA tournament (Photo Credit – Steve Dykes, Getty Images)

If anything I think he’ll be a late second round pick if he’s lucky, and I’m just hoping a team takes a chance on him in hopes of gaining ground in India. It could be the Kings or anyone honestly as 2 teams pushing Indian fans would likely be better than one. Either way I think this is an important moment for him and  the league and I hope he succeeds. This year has been big for the NBA and its push for India and I hope they can make the next step. I hope this kid is closer to India’s Yao Ming than their Yi Jianlan. However, even if he fails the NBA is making a long play effort in the country by building basketball courts throughout the country in hopes that one day we can have an Indian John Wall or Steph Curry. Whether Bhullar is the guy or not, the NBA is serious about finding their Indian Yao.

In any even I have high hopes that the NBA will succeed with these efforts to become the second sport in India. They have the “cool” international sport (by American standards) and dwarf the NFL on an international scale. They made a move to bring in an owner of Indian descent who is hell bent on pushing his team and his sport in his home country. They have succeeded with this kind of play in a massive international market before with China, and they have a young kid right at their fingertips who, though he is incredibly flawed, could become the first Indian player in their league. I say all the time that my favorite thing about sports is rooting for flags. That’s why the World Cup is my favorite sporting event every year. I love when a nation gets behind a sports team, and I love how much those major competitions mean to everyone involved. For now, then, I’m rooting for India’s flag, and I hope the people there can fall in love with the sport of basketball the same way I did, and join the ever growing international community of basketball fans.